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School districts, like all government agencies, are required by law to preserve emails so they can be accessed by the public. But at San Diego Unified School District, officials devised a way to make their emails disappear permanently, according to interviews and documents obtained by Voice of San Diego.
Technology personnel trained top-level district officials on a three-step procedure to permanently delete sensitive emails from the district server, an official who took part in the training told Voice of San Diego. The training took place two months after San Diego Unified entered into a court-approved agreement to keep emails for at least two years, as part of a lawsuit with Voice of San Diego.
“It seemed like the reason we were being trained to do this is because records requests were coming in and it was becoming a problem. And so we needed to understand how – when we sent things that we didn’t want the average Joe to see – to get rid of those emails,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
“I saw it as a training on how to protect the district,” the official said.
The official also said that top district officials frequently chatted in Google Docs in order to avoid communicating by email — a strategy commonly used among students to chat with one another without leaving a paper trail.
Records retention law in the state of California can be murky. Most documents are supposed to be retained for at least two years. Others that are considered of lesser importance can be deleted sooner, said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, when he was a state Assembly member last year, passed a law specifying that emails are among the types of communications that must be preserved for two years. But that bill was vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
But Snyder sees the permanent deletion of emails as a clear violation of the spirit of the law – if not the law itself.
“It’s disturbing,” said Snyder. “The Public Records Act would cease to have much meaning if agencies could just delete all records upon creation.”
District spokeswoman Maureen Magee acknowledged that the training took place. She said, however, that its purpose was not to train officials how to permanently delete emails – but rather, the opposite.
Users were “cautioned that deletion from the recovery folder would amount to permanent deletion from the system,” she wrote.
In other words, district officials were shown what a permanent deletion looked like, so they could avoid doing it, Magee contended.
That’s not how it went down, said the district official who sat in on one of the sessions. In the training, staffers were given instructions on how to purge emails from the San Diego Unified server, the official said.
A document from the training with handwritten notes – which have been redacted to protect the official’s identity – give the broad strokes of a process to permanently delete emails.
The notes read:
1) Delete items 2) Delete folder 3) Recover + Purge
Delete – Delete – Delete
Permanently removes email
To permanently delete an email, officials followed three steps. First, they simply deleted the email from their inbox. Next, they needed to delete it from the trash folder. Finally, they needed to go to the recovery folder and purge it to permanently delete the email, the official explained.
Using Google Docs for Sensitive Chats
Top officials within the district also reduced their record trail by communicating within Google Docs, the district official said.
“No one specifically told us to use Google Docs instead of putting it in an email, but that was the understanding,” the official said. “Communications to each other about controversial topics – it was frowned upon for those to be put in email.”
Google Docs was good for collaboration, the official said. And it also became a place where district workers could comment on important district business.
There’s nothing in state law preventing public employees from using Google Docs to talk to one another. But a problem would arise if the district didn’t preserve those conversations in response and search them as part of their process of responding to public records requests.
“The communications platform is irrelevant,” Snyder said. “If a communication takes place on, let’s say, a City Council member’s private email account rather than public email account, it’s still subject to the Public Records Act.”
Magee said the district does provide Google Docs to relevant Public Records Act requests. She did not make clear whether those documents include the history of comments made in the documents.
Nearly a dozen executive-level officials and a handful of executive assistants were told to expect the training on email deletion in February 2019. It informed them that Toren Allen, the executive director of integrated technology at the district, would give them a 10- to 15-minute, one-on-one training.
That training would be on “new email policy information,” the email said.
Allen, like most of the other officials on the email, did not respond to a request for comment. Two executive assistants acknowledged receiving an email about the training, but said they never attended a training themselves.
Just two months before the email went out, in December 2018, San Diego Unified entered into a court-approved agreement to keep emails for at least two years, as part of a settlement agreement with Voice of San Diego.
Under Superintendent Cindy Marten’s leadership, district administrators had planned to start deleting emails after six months – without board approval. After backlash, the district suggested it would keep emails for a year.
Voice of San Diego sued, and the district agreed to keep emails for two years until at least 2023, at which time the court agreement expires.
The court order reads: “This Stipulated Order applies only to automatic deletion procedures, and shall not prevent SDUSD employees from deleting email from their individual accounts in the ordinary course of business and in compliance with the law then in effect.”
Felix Tinkov, an attorney representing Voice of San Diego, said that the practice of permanently deleting emails violates the court order – and it violates the law.
“Individuals deleting messages permanently within [the two-year period] would not be in compliance with the law,” he wrote in an email.
Andra Greene, the district’s attorney, was included on the email explaining the training would take place. She did not respond to a query asking if the practice of permanently deleting emails complies with the law or clarify whether she attended the training.
The court settlement was entered into as part of an ongoing lawsuit against San Diego Unified for “improperly delaying and obstructing the disclosure of public records on a regular basis,” Tinkov said. Though the parties settled on the email retention issue, the broader lawsuit addressing the district’s public records policies is ongoing.
Marten – who has been nominated to serve as deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Education – regularly talks about the importance of having “courageous conversations” that acknowledge the district’s shortcomings in order to make it better.
But under her leadership, the district has frequently worked to avoid transparency. Some records requests by Voice of San Diego have gone multiple years without a response. In other cases, reporters were told files regarding sexual misconduct by a teacher did not exist. After a court subpoena, those records suddenly appeared. The local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists gave San Diego Unified its “Wall Award” in 2017 “for not valuing openness and transparency,” the Union-Tribune reported.
When asked whether Marten was aware that some administrators were instructed in how to permanently delete emails, Magee, the spokeswoman, did not respond.